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The unique, ageworthy wines of Amarone

amarone wine
Photo credit: Tedeschi Wines

With so much cross over nowadays, in terms of viticultural and winemaking techniques, it is getting harder and harder to find unique wine styles. Burgundian look-a-like Chardonnay is cropping up through-out Australia. German Rieslings are getting drier and more alcoholic, especially in the warmer sub-zones, making them harder to differentiate from Alsace.

To make matters worse (from the point of view of a Masters of Wine student), popular grape varieties – think Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc – are being planted all around the world. Deducing the origin of a wine in a blindtasting scenario has never been so complicated.

So when you (the wine student) are handed a glass of inky, dense, full-bodied red wine, with a heady fragrance of stewed black fruits, figs, kirsch, peonies, and spice, you find yourself smiling. For Amarone is truly a wine apart.

A dense, full-bodied red wine, with a heady fragrance of stewed black fruits, figs, kirsch, peonies, and spice.

Hailing from the Valpolicella region of Northeast Italy, Amarone is a very specific wine style. It is made from the same indigenous grapes as Valpolicella, but from the best vineyard sites featuring mature vines and lower yields. Harvested at optimal ripeness, the grapes are then left to shrivel in warm, ventilated drying lofts for several months. For more information on this special process, called appassimento, click here to read my article “Valpolicella 101”.

Once the grapes are deemed sufficiently raisined, they are lightly crushed and then macerated at cool temperatures for an extended period prior to fermentation. This “cold soak” process allows good colour and aromatic development without excessive tannin extraction. A long, relatively cool fermentation follows bringing the wines to near dryness, with warming alcohol levels, regularly surpassing 15%.

Amarone is a very specific wine style…from the best Valpolicella vineyard sites featuring mature vines and lower yields.

An extended ageing period follows in small barrels or large oak casks whereby tannins mellow, wines harmonize, and aromatic complexity heightens. This is where “tertiary” aromas and flavours like fig, leather, or earthy notes originate.

On a grey, blustery day last month, I pulled the hood of my parka tightly about my face, and trudged through the snow to a very worthy event. The 13 Valpolicella estates that make up the Famiglie Storiche were in town presenting a vertical tasting of Amarone.

This group of prestigious, family-owned wineries share a passion for Amarone as a symbol of the Valpolicella territory. They hold themselves to a higher standard of quality than is required for the appellation.

The aim of the Famiglie Storiche estates is to show the world just how impressive Amarone can be when produced to the highest quality standards.

They believe that the finest, Amarone-worthy vineyards are situated on slopes. These hillside vines receive more direct sunlight, allowing for optimal ripening. Furthermore, these sites have shallow soils that limit vine vigour, lowering grape yields, and thus giving wines of greater concentration and intensity. Grapes are left to ripen to a minimum potential alcohol of 15%. The appassimento period is longer, and the minimum oak ageing duration is 36 months (vs. 24 months required for basic Amarone).

The aim of the Famiglie Storiche estates is to show the world just how impressive Amarone can be when produced to the highest quality standards. The Montréal tasting spanned vintages from 8 to 20 years-old, and ably proved how age-worthy fine Amarone can be.

The stand out wines of the tasting for me were the following. For the ultimate Amarone evening, scroll to the bottom for a great local recipe.

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

Torre d’Orti Amarone della Valpolicella 2010 – 92pts. LW

A modern, opulent style of Amarone with lavish new French oak nuances (cedar, sweet spice), and a dense, yet velvetty texture. Ultra-ripe dark cherry and plum fruit feature on the nose, underscored by notes of dark chocolate. Fresh, full-bodied, and moderately tannic, with well-integrated 15% alcohol. Hints of tobacco linger on the finish.

Where to buy: L’Enoteca di Moreno de Marchi (Québec)

Masi “Costasera” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2007 – 94pts. LW

Classico is a term used in many Italian vineyards referring to the historic growing area of a region, from which the vineyards spread outwards. The Classico sub-zone is generally considered the “heart” of the appellation, often consisting of the best vineyard sites.

Masi’s dark, brooding Costasera 2007 is still incredibly youthful, featuring vibrant acidity and a tightly knit palate structure. Elegant, complex aromas of peony, rose, dark fruits, and cocoa delight on the nose. The mid-palate shows great depth of flavour, with meaty, savoury nuances adding interest. The tannins, while polished, are still quite firm. Needs a few more years cellaring to mellow and integrate further.

Where to buy: Authentic Wines & Spirits (national)

Musella Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva 2006 – 94pts. LW

Riserva refers to wines aged longer before bottling. The minimum duration for Riserva status is 4 years (vs. 2 years for basic Amarone).

Intense aromas of licorice, red cherry, blueberry, plum and dried fruit feature on the nose. The palate is highly concentrated, with a velvetty smooth texture, and perfectly balanced acidity. Very firm, grippy tannins frame the finish. This bold, weighty, warming red needs an equally hearty meal to do it justice.

Where to buy: Importation le Pot de Vin (Québec)

Tenuta Sant’Antonio “Campo dei Gigli” Amarone della Valpolicella 2004 – 90pts. LW

Intriguing aromas of prune, licorice, tobacco, and pepper gain in intensity upon aeration. Fresh, and full-bodied, with a moderately concentrated core of sweet dark fruit and savoury hints. Moderately firm, powdery tannins diffuse across the palate, framing the finish nicely. Drinking well now.

Where to buy: Mark Anthony Wines (national)

Tedeschi “Capitel Monte Olmi” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2001 – 95pts LW

A massively structured red, with a dense, richly textured palate profile. Brimming with blueberry, cherry, fig, mocha, sweet spice, and tobacco notes, this is an incredibly complex, fragrant wine. The whopping 16% alcohol is seamlessly integrated, as are the firm, ripe tannins. Drinking well now, with the power and depth to hold for several years yet.

Where to buy: La Céleste Levure (Québec), Noble Estates (Ontario)

Speri “Vigneto Monte Sant-Urbano” Amarone della Valpolicella 1998 – 92pts. LW

Dried fruit, herbal notes, roasted nuts, and mineral nuances feature on the nose of this 20-year old beauty. Still very fresh, and firm on the palate, with a layered complexity of prune, leather, and tobacco flavours. Overall, a very harmonious, well integrated red with a powerful, concentrated nature, and lengthy finish. Drink now before freshness fades.

Where to buy: Lifford Wines (Ontario)

Pairing Suggestions

Amarone should be opened several hours before serving, and decanted if possible. I prefer it chilled down a couple of degrees. The alcohol can feel quite hot on the finish if served too warm.

While dining in the Valpolicella region a couple of years ago, I was served the most decadent meal, with a fine Amarone. It was a rich, savoury risotto, made by replacing the majority of broth with Amarone wine. It is absolutely delicious, but remember… a little goes a long way!

Click here for the recipe. Buon appetito!

Education Life

Veneto Travel Diaries Part 5 – Valpolicella 101

What is Valpolicella

Valpolicella…land of wine, charm and tradition. So proclaims the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, responsable for the marketing and promotion of the region. And they are not wrong. Those three descriptors aptly sum up what awaits you when you arrive in this sunny paradise. Lush green hillsides and plains covered in vines, cherry and olive trees, farmers out tending to their crops and ancient stone villages boasting delicious trattorias.

The vineyards of Valpolicella lie in the province of Verona in Northeastern Italy. There are three distinct areas. Firstly, the “Classico” region, the historic heart of the appellation which consists of three major valleys (Fumane, Marano and Negrar). This area is slightly higher in altitude than the outlying DOC area and benefits from optimal ripening conditions. “Classico” on a label of Valpolicella is generally a good indication of quality, although increasingly producers from the outlying areas further to the east (Valpantena and the generic Valpolicella DOC area) are now producing excellent wines.

Valpolicella is red wine country. All of the wines are blended from the same set of indigenous grapes featuring the prerequisite Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Corvina is the major grape. It gives structure, body, bright acidity and attractive cherry and herbal notes to the wines. Its thick skin is a vital quality for the appassimento process (more on this later). Corvinone was originally thought to be a clone of Corvina, but has been proven to be a separate variety. The bunches are looser, with bigger grapes. It gives heady, perfumed wines, redolent with cherry and floral notes. Molinara is the minor player, accounting for 5 – 30% of blends. It is also a fairly aromatic grape, with the necessary thick skins. Small amounts of lesser known varieties like Molinara and Oseleta are sometimes thrown in for seasoning. Each producer will determine their own blend (within the DOC regulations), depending on what grows best in their vineyard, and what style they are looking to craft.

Corvina…gives structure, body, bright acidity and attractive cherry and herbal notes…

There are two key elements that make the wines of Valpolicella so enticing. Firstly, there is incredible value for money on offer here. While Tuscany and Piedmont enjoy greater international renown, the producers of Valpolicella have quietly but surely ramped up quality, while keeping the prices nice! Secondly, the region boasts unique winemaking methods resulting in a range of wine styles from light and fruity to rich and full-bodied.

As with so many classic, Old World wine regions, the wine classifications are best understood by picturing a multi-tiered pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, you have basic Valpolicella DOC. This is your every day, barbeque wine. It is lively, with tart cherry fruit flavours, medium body and smooth tannins. Served slightly chilled, it is dangerously drinkable. The next step up the pyramid brings us to Valpolicella Superiore DOC. These “superior” wines are aged a minimum of one year in oak or other wood vessels, and have a minimum alcohol content of 12%. They retain the bright, fruit driven character of the basic level, but with a little more depth and persistence. Ripasso della Valpolicella DOC offers even greater concentration and complexity. The vinification technique for Ripasso is unique. Dry base wines are made in the same manner as basic Valpolicella. Several months later, the base wine is transferred into a tank containing the leftover pommace of grape skins from the vinification of another wine, the Amarone. These skins are still rich in sugars and yeasts, provoking a second fermentation for the Valpolicella. The wine is “repassed” (hence the name Ripasso). This process adds glycerol (leading to a rounder mouthfeel), gives richer flavours and higher alcohol levels.

At the top of the pyramid, we have the two DOCG wines: Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella. This is where the “appassimento” process comes into play. Appassimento is the act of drying grapes for an extended period so that 40% or more of the water evaporates, resulting in shrivelled berries rich in flavour and sugar. The Amarone destined grapes are dried for 90 to 120 days on average, in large drying lofts designed to permit good air circulation. The bunches are carefully inspected throughout the process to ensure they remain in good condition, free of moulds that would taint the flavour. The raisined bunches are then carefully transferred to tanks or large wooden vats for fermentation, followed by long aging (2 years for Amarone, 4 years for Amarone Riserva) in large, generally neutral wood casks. The wine is opulent, bold, rich, full bodied, highly alcoholic, generally over 15% and often up to 17%. These are reds to cellar for 7 – 12 years and serve with savoury, hearty fare. Recioto winemaking begins in the same way, but the drying period is longer (120 to 150 days on average), and instead of then fermenting the wines dry, the process is halted mid-way to give a rich, concentrated, cherry and dried fruit scented, sweet wine (often up to 150g/L of residual sugar).

The wine is opulent, bold, rich, full bodied, highly alcoholic…best served with savoury, hearty fare.

Recioto is the oldest wine style of the area with a history dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The “Retico” was the wine of choice for the emperor Augustus, and the pride of all growers. It was in crafting this fine nectar that the Amarone style was (accidently) born. Amarone derives from the Italian word for bitter, and was the adjective used when the Recioto was occasionally left too long during fermentation with all of the sugar transformed to alcohol. The dry, alcoholic wine was considered overly bitter and generally thrown away. Not until the 1050s did opinions change and the Amarone style become appreciated in its own right.

Valpolicella is a storied region, with a long history of crafting unique, captivating wines. From light and fruity to heady and rich, there is a wine for every palate. Try this local recipe with a glass of Ripasso or Amarone and you will be packing your bags for Verona!